Nick Sanvers

Interlude 11B – Robert and Pencil (Summus Proelium)

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Four Years Ago

With the steady sound of tires gliding across uneven pavement, a wheelchair rolled across the dark, empty parking lot toward the front of the member’s only warehouse store. Its occupant, Robert Parson, was incredibly tall when standing. At his full height, the dark-skinned man was a solidly built six feet, eight inches. Which meant that even seated as he was now, he cut quite an impressive figure, and his eye level remained higher than many even when they were standing.

The wheelchair wasn’t electric. Nor was it one of those Tech-Touched brain-operated models. No, it was an old-school, manual chair, propelled by Robert’s own heavily-muscled arms as he pushed the wheels to guide himself right up the ramp and to the front doors of the store. 

Despite being automatic doors, they were locked and didn’t open. As he sat in that wheelchair, Robert considered those stubbornly motionless doors for a moment before slowly leaning up. His hand stretched out, and he gave three firm, loud knocks against the metal part of the door. The sound rang out around him and he could hear it within the store itself through the glass.  

Instantly, the beam of a powerful flashlight appeared from inside, pointed right at his eyes. It came quickly enough that Robert had no doubt the person on the other side of it, hidden in the dark recesses just beyond the store’s entrance area, had been watching him the whole time, waiting for the man to announce himself like that. He also had no doubt that there was some kind of gun on the other side of that light as well, if he had tried to break in quietly.

For a moment, nothing else happened. There was silence, while that blinding light was shown directly into his eyes. Finally, the light dimmed slightly, and a figure appeared in front of it. The figure moved to stand in front of the door, staring at Robert. Then the seated man heard a quiet chuckle, before a hand reached out to touch a control on one side of the door. It finally slid open with a hiss, as the man within stepped aside with a grand gesture for the new arrival to enter. 

With a single push against the wheels, Robert sent the chair into the store, then made the chair turn to face the figure who had let him in. Finally, he was able to look the other man in the face.

Well, sort of. The man wore a mask, a sackcloth bag of sorts that left his eyes and mouth exposed. Beyond that, he wore a brown tweed suit that didn’t fit properly, with black gloves. In one of those gloves, the man held a heavy-duty pistol. It was already pointed at Robert. “So you’re the guy they sent in, huh? Took you fucking long enough to get here,” he complained. “What’d they do, have the cash flown in from Chicago? 

“You call yourself Pencil, right?” Robert prompted, ignoring both the complaint and the gun leveled right at his face. “That’s what people keep saying anyway. Pencil, the invincible. Or is it Pencil, the immune?”

The response from the other man was a snicker. “Tell you the truth, I prefer Pencil the humble and charming,” he drawled with obvious amusement before giving a vague wave of his free hand, the gun never wavering from its target, “but for now, we’ll go with the most important title: Pencil, the man in charge. And I’ve gotta say, when I told the Krights to send just one guy who wouldn’t make me nervous, I wasn’t expecting them to embrace the goal so much. I mean, a wheelchair? They send in a guy in a wheelchair? Now that is commitment to the cause.” 

He trailed off, lifting his chin thoughtfully. “Course, if you weren’t in that chair, big guy like you might be a bit more of a concern. But I suppose I don’t have anything to worry about, long as you’re stuck there.” Pausing, he added in a curious tone, “So which is it? You trying to trick me, or do you really need that thing? Come on, you can tell me. We can be friends and sort this out.” 

Robert spoke flatly, his words gruff as he watched the man’s reaction. “Spine injury. Paraplegic.” From everything he’d already heard, he was positive that this ‘Pencil’ wasn’t nearly as old as others thought he was. No, he wasn’t a man at all. Not in the sense of being an adult. He was a teenager. Robert was pegging him at somewhere between sixteen and seventeen, though he’d be more confident if that mask wasn’t there. Of course, a lot of things would be different without the mask, and the power that it symbolized. 

“Shit, really?” Pencil shook his head. “That sucks, man. Unless–” His free hand snapped down, a small blade somehow appearing in his grip as he stabbed it into Robert’s thigh while pushing the pistol right up against his chin expectantly. “–you’re fucking lying!” 

A brief pause followed, while he stared into Robert’s eyes, waiting for a reaction to the pain of the blade in his leg. When none came, he slowly chuckled, before straightening. The knife came free. “Well! Okay then, I guess we’re all good, huh? Glad to see we’re on the same page.” 

With that, he pivoted and started to walk. His hand moved to grab a nearby roll of gauze, which he tossed over his shoulder to the seated man. “Might wanna wrap that up, big guy.” 

The fact that this Pencil, a freak who had started playing his psychotic games through the city a few months earlier, had had gauze ready and waiting, showed that he’d always been prepared to stab whoever came through that door. Probably as a way of making a point about who was in control of the situation. Robert considered that, adding it to what he knew about this kid while pressing the gauze pad against the wound in his leg. It auto-bonded, the sides sticking to his jeans while the middle part sealed itself to the actual wound. At least that meant he wouldn’t get blood all over the chair. 

Once that was done, he gave a shove to the wheels to send himself after the waiting Pencil. “The kid,” he said flatly, “where is he?”

“See, here’s the thing,” Pencil retorted, “I’m pretty sure I demanded money in exchange for the kid. And call me crazy, but I’m just not seeing how you can keep a million dollars stashed in your pockets. What’re you doing, sitting on it? Please tell me you’re not sitting on it. Cuz this whole business venture here is just gonna seem like it’s not worth it if my money’s got your butt on it.”

In response, Robert held up one hand, then used two fingers to carefully reach into his pocket while the other man watched him intently. Slowly, he withdrew a leather bag and gave it a light toss that way. “There’s half.” 

Catching the bag, Pencil curiously opened it, pouring out a handful of diamonds with a low whistle. 

“That’s five hundred thousand worth right there,” Robert informed him. “There’s an identical bag in my other pocket. You get that after I get the boy. Then we all get out of here.” 

“Well, well, how wonderfully shiny.” Shoving the bag of diamonds in his own pocket, Pencil gave a grand gesture. “In that case, let’s not dilly dally. I’m sure the Krights want their boy back.” Clicking his heels together, he started walking deeper into the store. “And what do I call you, for being such a fine, upstanding mediator in all this?” 

“Just a man doing a favor,” Robert informed him simply, rolling after the psychotic superpowered killer. “You said no Stars, no Shields. I’m neither.” 

Giving what was obviously an amused grin over his shoulder as they moved together through the store, Pencil cracked, “Yeah, I suppose I would’ve heard about the amazing paraplegic man if you were Touched, eh?” Snickering to himself, he finally put a hand out to stop Robert. “Right here’s good.” Raising his voice, Pencil called, “Hey kid! Step out into sight, would ya?!” 

While Robert watched intently, a fourteen-year-old boy with brown hair hesitantly stepped out of one of the aisles ahead of them, maybe sixty feet away. He was gagged, and both of his wrists were handcuffed to a chain, which itself was wrapped around the thick metal pole holding up the shelves of that aisle. 

“There’s the kid, just like I promised,” Pencil announced. “Owen Kright, ready and waiting to go right back to his precious mommy and daddy. And this,” he held up a key, “goes to those cuffs. I’ll trade you for that other bag of yours, then I’ll run on out of here while you go unlock the kid. Everyone ends up happy. And, more importantly, not dead.” An obvious grin stretched across his face, visible through the hole in the mask. “What do you say, pal?” 

“What do I say…?” For a moment, Robert looked at the handcuffed, gagged boy. There was obvious terror in his eyes, even from this distance. The kid was scared shitless. It reminded Robert of another, younger child who had been frightened like that, just a year earlier. A kid who still meant an awful lot to him, even if he wasn’t her bodyguard anymore.

Finally, he looked back to the masked man and met those eyes, peering at him through the jagged holes. His voice was even as he replied, “I think you’ve been breaking the rules of this city for too long, and it’s about time that someone show you there are consequences to that.”  

Pencil’s immediate reaction was a slightly lifted chin, his gaze regarding the other man with renewed interest. “Oooh, what city rules am I breaking? Is it the kidnapping? The ransom demand? Wait, no, shit, I’ve got it. It must be the eight store employees laying in pieces in the back room over there, isn’t it?” Adopting a chagrined tone, he lamented, “I always forget about the ‘don’t chop people up and strew their bodies over the back room’ rule.” A toothy smile appeared through the hole in the mask. “One of these days, that’s gonna get me in trouble.” 

“One of these days,” Robert agreed in a dry voice, before adding, “And you broke the rules of the Ministry. That’s a bad idea.” 

“The Ministry, the Ministry, all I keep hearing about every time I try to have a little fun is the Ministry.” Pencil’s head shook with annoyance. “What’s the point of being a bad guy if you follow all these little rules, hmm? Which one was this, no kidnapping teenagers after Labor Day? Wait, is Labor Day the one in the spring or the fall? Fuck, I always mix that one up with Memorial Day. Wait, Memorial Day is Maymorial Day. May. May, I was right the first time. No kidnapping after Labor Day?” 

“Some of these rich people,” Robert informed him, “they pay what you’d call a special tax. Makes their kids safe from the Fells in the city. Because the Fells, like you, know that the second they break the rules and go after one of those protected kids, that’s when the Ministry steps in. You broke that rule. That kid over there, the Krights pay their taxes. He’s protected. You should’ve left him alone. Now, I’ve been asked to step in.” 

Clapping his hands together once with a sound of put-on fear, Pencil replied in a terribly shaking voice. “Ohh no, Paraplegic Man is gonna punish me for not playing by some asinine rules. Whatever will I do?” Snickering to himself, he leaned over a bit while taunting, “Would it help you be more intimidating if I got a little closer to that chair you’re stuck in?” 

It was Robert’s turn to offer a very faint, humorless smile. His voice was a quiet, barely audible murmur, “Now, who said I was stuck in it?” 

The moment those words reached Pencil and he started to react, Robert’s hand lashed out as he rose from the seat. He grabbed the Fell-Touched by the collar of his suit and bodily yanked him over. Before he knew what was happening, Pencil was shoved into the wheelchair while a pair of heavy shackles were yanked from Robert’s pockets and latched over the psychopath’s wrists to trap him there. It happened so quickly and smoothly that Pencil was already seated and cuffed to the chair by the time he was actually able to react to the sudden motion. Belatedly, his foot lashed out to kick at the larger man, but Robert had already stepped backward. His movement was no more hindered from the old spinal injury (which had already been addressed by the finest medical experts and equipment that money could buy) than it was by the knife stab that he had intentionally shown no reaction to in order to carry on the ruse.

Jerking against the shackles, Pencil gave a loud laugh that sounded more annoyed than amused. “Oh, you think something like this is gonna hold me, big man?” Despite his words, the psychopath couldn’t move from that spot. The chair was suddenly much more rooted to the floor than it had been, and refused to budge. 

“Nope,” Robert replied with a slight headshake. “Probably not for long. Not with all those Tech toys you’ve been stealing. I figure one of the first things you did was grab something that could get you out of a tight spot. Something to teleport away, something to phase out of those cuffs, probably both. And other bullshit tricks, more than I could shake a really big stick at. “But before you do anything drastic, tell me, you hear a click when you sat in that thing?” 

The masked boy’s head slowly tilted, while he considered the question. “If you’re saying there’s a mine in this chair, we need to have a chat about how my power works.” 

“Not a mine in the chair, no,” Robert agreed. “That wouldn’t accomplish shit. but you know how you bitched about how long it took me to get here? I could’ve made it sooner, but you see, something occurred to me before I ever came to this place. You’re not just in it for the ransom.” 

Clearly still annoyed, yet curious about where the man was going with that (and confident beyond the point of arrogance that he couldn’t be hurt thanks to his power), Pencil managed to shift a bit until he was almost lounging in the wheelchair despite being cuffed to it. “I’m not?” Another toothy smile appeared. “This sounds like a fun theory you’ve cooked up. Do tell.” He obviously wasn’t worried about actually being trapped, given his prepared defenses against similar scenarios. 

“See,” Robert informed him, “all that stuff I said a minute ago about the whole rules about not targeting rich people’s kids? You knew that already. You chose that kid over there for a reason. It wasn’t random. It wasn’t an accident. You chose that kid because you knew it would get the Ministry’s attention. Because you wanted that kid’s parents to run to the Ministry and get them involved. You like to play magician, Pencil. You like to play ‘look over here’ while your little assistant does the real trick behind the curtain.” 

“And what assistant d–” Pencil started. 

Robert interrupted with, “Seven-Three-Eight-Five Abalone Drive West. Suite Thirty-Six.” 

For the first time, Pencil did a double-take of genuine surprise, blurting, “How do you–” 

“You’ve been looking for those records for a long time, haven’t you?” Robert asked, shaking his head. “Two different kidnappings, a hostage crisis at a grocery store, and a bar brawl that escalated into mass murder, all in under two months. And during each and every one of those events, where you stayed longer than you had to, a different office that holds adoption records was broken into by a young woman who was just… so distracting. Four different offices. But they were all the wrong ones. They didn’t have the records the two of you were looking for, did they? They didn’t have the records of what happened to the baby that Collette and Shane Elbrecht gave away. Collette and Shane Elbrecht,” he added thoughtfully, “two of your first victims, from almost a year ago.” 

After a brief pause to judge the silent masked boy’s reaction, Robert continued. “But they weren’t random either, were they? You stole something out of their house. A box, one you want to get into pretty badly. But you didn’t realize it was DNA-locked until after you killed them. Can’t break into it without destroying whatever’s inside. And you can’t use a dead person to open it. You need a living relative to open that box. And you’re so desperate to get whatever’s inside, when you found out those two gave away a baby years back, you just had to get the files to find out where they ended up.” 

Obviously taken aback by how much the strange man knew, Pencil managed, “You put a lot together on your way over here, old man.” 

“Didn’t just put it together on my way over,” Robert informed him, reaching into his jacket pocket before withdrawing a manila folder with some papers, which he opened to show the masked figure a brief glimpse of. “I stopped at the office and grabbed the file before your girl could get there. Deleted the computer file too, just in case. Which makes this the only copy left.” He waved the folder idly. “I’d wager she’s still looking through all those boxes as we speak.” 

Eyes zeroing in on the file, Pencil slowly announced, “You know what, heh. Good show. But you give me that file and I’ll let you walk out of here with the kid and the gems. All I want is that file. Hell, you hand it over and we could all be friends.” 

“Friends, huh?” Robert appeared to consider that for a moment. Then he shook his head. “Nah.” With that, the man produced a lighter, holding it up to the folder. In seconds, the papers within were engulfed in flames. 

“You fucking cocksucker!” The scream of rage tore its way out of Pencil’s throat, before he blurted an obvious command word for stolen Touched-Tech, “Sideslip!” For an instant, it worked. The masked figure was abruptly standing a few feet away from the wheelchair, no longer handcuffed. But in the next instant, he was engulfed in white flames, before abruptly disappearing entirely with a scream of surprise. 

Turning on his heel while dropping the remnants of the file to the floor as they turned to ash, Robert walked to where Owen Kright was, reaching out to take the gag off the boy. 

“Wha–what just–what’d you do?!” Owen blurted, eyes wide with shock. 

“Didn’t give him diamonds, I’ll tell you that much,” Robert replied. “Serclin Stones, named after the guy who makes them. They… react volatilely to any kind of Travel powers. Even Tech-Touched-based ones. Makes them explode and screw with the Travel power that set them off. That guy could be anywhere in the state right now.” 

“But,” the boy stammered, “what was the click when he sat in the chair? You said it wasn’t a mine, but… but what was it?”

“What, that?” Robert showed the boy a small smile. “Nothing. There was no click. But he wasn’t about to admit he didn’t hear it when I implied there was one, and it made him shut up trying to figure it out long enough for me to get through what I needed to do.

“Now come on, let’s get you out of here. I’ve got a guy named Kent who’d like to have a quick word with you before you go back to your parents.” 

*******

Two hours later, fifteen-year-old Amanda Sanvers, known to the public as Cup, sat in the back of a diner, watching a couple late night news talking heads blather on about the latest Collision Point. Apparently some idiots actually worshipped those Abyssal monsters. 

She glanced over as her beloved brother made his way to the booth and slumped down in it. His voice was dark. “It was right there. We almost had it.” 

“He read the file,” Amanda assured him gently, hand moving over to squeeze Nick’s arm. “We just need to get info out of him. We’ll find out where that kid was adopted off to, and open the box. We just gotta be a little patient.” 

“What we need,” Nick informed her, “is some more help. This two person act thing isn’t cutting it. We need some more lackeys. We need partners. The Ministry, all these other gangs, even the heroes, they’ve all got gangs. We need a team. But not a boring one. We need a bunch of really fucked up people we can use for cannon fodder and entertainment, babe. But where are we gonna find people like that?” 

Lifting her chin, Amanda nodded to the television. “How about right there?” 

He looked that way, coughing once. “Typhon? Sweetness, I’m good, but I’m not ‘talk an Abyssal  into doing our bidding’ good.” 

It was Amanda’s turn to grin. “Not the Abyssal. All those dumbass fucks they’ve got lined up to worship him. Those stupid fucking Abyssal cults. They seem good for a laugh.”

For a moment, Nick didn’t respond. He watched the news going on about the people who were obsessed with the Abyssals in general, and the one called Typhon in particular. Finally, he chuckled low. “My sweet, sweet sister. 

“Sometimes, you have the most amazing ideas.”

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Alliances 6-02 (Summus Proelium)

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So, on the plus side, I now knew where one of the missing vials was. And to get it, all I had to do was promise a favor to one of the biggest supervillains in the city. 

Well, that’s what I had to do. There was also the matter of the favors from Wren and Blackjack. The former had agreed basically as soon as she learned what the deal was. She wanted to help anyway she could, after her stuff had been used to steal the vials in the first place. I had caught the guilty look on Fred’s face at that point. Good, he should feel guilty, even if he didn’t know how badly this whole thing would go. 

As far as people who didn’t feel guilty went, I had a thought briefly about informing Ashton that the vial he’d left in the shop had been found and accounted for, but decided against it. There was a chance that, for whatever reason, holding that information back might pay off in the long run. And telling him wouldn’t accomplish anything aside from letting me feel smug for a few seconds. So, just in case, I said nothing about it to him and asked the others to do the same. He was probably counting on us not being able to get the vial away from Cuélebre, and I preferred he just go on thinking that. 

Blackjack, for his part, had barely paused when the offer was brought to his attention. He agreed basically immediately, simply saying that he would rather negotiate with Deicide than Cuélebre, which… yeah. I was basically totally with him on that. She seemed infinitely more reasonable than the demon-dragon guy who had almost killed me. Even if I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something off about her. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was sure that she was at least a better person to have this kind of deal with than Cuélebre, as far as incredibly powerful and dangerous super villains went. 

And geez, how many of those was I going to come face-to-face with in a short time anyway? I was basically working my way through the list of the who’s who of the Detroit Fell-Touched underworld. 

In any case, after everything that had happened, once I finished letting Wren and Blackjack know what was going on, I was beat. It had been a very long couple of hours, and the ‘rest’ I’d gotten while knocked unconscious hadn’t exactly been all that restful. So, even though it was still fairly early in the evening, I had gone home to crash, basically passing out immediately.

That lasted for all of about four hours. Then I was wide-awake in what amounted to the middle of the night. Seriously, this whole hero thing wasn’t going to kill me through violence, it was going to do it through fucking with my sleep cycle. 

After the scare I’d had with getting captured and very nearly tortured, maybe I should have stayed home. Hell, that was the main reason I couldn’t go back to sleep. Tired as I had been, I’d jolted awake from some nightmare that vanished the second my eyes opened. But I knew if I closed them again, it would be back. I’d tried to watch a movie for a while, but I couldn’t focus on it. I just ended up looking around my enormous room with all my stuff and thinking about how it had come to be. That made me feel guilty. There were people out there on the streets who needed help. Who was I to sit here in my gigantic bed watching my enormous television? Was being scared because I’d gotten knocked out and almost really hurt that much of an excuse? No.

So, I’d gotten up and snuck out of the house. Now, I was back in costume, working my way through the city. There wasn’t actually much real crime going on that I could see. But I found another way to help. Or at least assuage my guilt a little bit, depending on how cynical one wanted to be. 

Basically, I took a couple hundred dollars or so into an all-night grocery store and bought a bunch of sandwiches, chips, and other things. Boy had that been an interesting time, seeing the few people in there staring at me in costume as I made my way through the aisles.  To say nothing of the look on the clerk’s face when I checked out. He kept asking if I was going to some kind of party or cosplay thing. I tried to keep things vague while still being polite, and he seemed to understand. Though I could tell he still had a lot of questions. 

Taking the supplies in a few large bags, I made my way through the streets, handing them out to the homeless people I saw. Everyone got a sandwich, a bag of chips, a bottle of water, some basic toiletries like soap, toothpaste/brush, deodorant, and disposable razors. That kind of thing. 

It wasn’t much. I wasn’t going to solve homelessness in an evening with a couple hundred dollars. I knew that. But it might help a few people, or at least make them feel a little better about themselves for a bit. Maybe I could do more later. Maybe I’d think of something else that wouldn’t attract too much attention. For now, this was all I could think of, and it kept me busy.

Not everyone was all that openly appreciative, of course. I did receive plenty of gratitude, probably more than I deserved. But there were also others who simply snatched what I gave to them and cursed me for looking down on them. A couple even refused, one man spitting at me. It wasn’t that many, and far from any kind of representative sample. But they existed, and I didn’t really hold it against them too much. Being cursed out even as my gifts were being accepted wasn’t that bad. I had no real idea about the kind of things these people went through, so I wasn’t going to judge them for being a bit nasty.

No, the ones who really bothered me were those who were very clearly not able to take care of themselves. The ones who were not all there in the head, who needed to be in some kind of care facility. Those were the ones who messed me up. I wanted to do more for them. I wanted to take them into a hospital, or something. I wanted to scream at passersby that these people were their fellow human beings who needed help, and why the hell were they just walking past the guy laying in the gutter muttering to himself? 

But I couldn’t do any of that. It wouldn’t have accomplished anything. I just gave them what I could, told myself I would find a way to do more, and kept going.

Blankets. Coats. That’s what I needed to get. Blankets and coats. Jackets. Pillows. Things that could make them a little more comfortable. 

Then I saw it, police cars and crime scene tape all around some convenience store. There were people watching from the sidelines as a lot of body bags started to be carried out to waiting vans. From the looks of it, there were over a dozen bodies. Through the glass windows of the store, I could see a couple uniformed cops standing by Dynamic and RePete, of the Conservators. Dynamic was a speedster who could temporarily drain superpowers from people she ran near and use the energy she gained from that to form lasers, shields, or weapons. As for RePete, people thought he was some kind of short-term precog for awhile. But apparently, his actual power had something to do with going back in time just a couple of seconds. There were some kind of limitations to it, but they weren’t exactly open about advertising exactly how it worked. All I knew was that from an outside point of view, he seemed to simply know when something was going to happen right before it did. 

From the corner of my eye, I saw a man in a jogging suit step over to me. He was frowning, head shaking as he gestured toward the building. “Hey, when the fuck are you Star-Touched types gonna do something about this shit, huh?”

“What happened?“ I asked quietly, afraid of what kind of answer I’d get considering how many bodies were being taken out. 

“The Scions,” another man answered. “Mostly Pencil, but somebody said there might have been a couple others around.”

Pencil. Of all the Fell-Touched in the city, he was the one who freaked people out the most. Others might have been more out right powerful or able to do more widespread damage, but Pencil was just… wrong. As far as anyone could tell, his only motivation, and by extension, the motivation of his Scions, was to worship the Abyssal named Typhon, and cause as much chaos and misery as possible. Sometimes they stole things from their crime scenes, while other times stuff that was incredibly valuable and just sitting there would be left alone. Sometimes they targeted big events full of rich people and other times they would attack a single house or even some random person on the street for no apparent reason. Sometimes they would go weeks or even a month or so without doing anything, and other times their attacks would come several times in the same day. Their creed apparently was to make everyone know that anyone could be a victim. They spread chaos, that was it. 

They were all monsters, and Pencil was the worst. I had no trouble believing he was responsible for all the dead bodies in that store. He wasn’t the worst or most dangerous Fell-Touched in the world. The ‘honor’ of both those titles went to a woman called Casura. 

But still, Casura wasn’t here in Detroit. Pencil was (when he wasn’t somewhere else in the general area). And he had to be stopped, these guys were right about that. But the problem was, nobody knew how to do that. The guy had been shot dozens if not hundreds of times, set on fire, hit with God only knew how many different kinds of Touched attacks, stabbed, left in an exploding building, dropped off several other tall buildings, and more I was definitely forgetting about. Nothing stuck. The guy was invincible, or something.  He been captured a couple times and restrained, but that never got very far before his minions set upon the person who caught them. They were always there in the background, pretending to be part of the crowd. Any time you dealt with Pencil, you had to assume that some of the people in the crowd of onlookers that he was playing up to would actually be members of the Scions. 

Realizing that the men who had approached me were still waiting for an answer, I hesitated before shaking my head. “I… I’m sorry. I wish I knew how we could stop him. He can’t just keep getting away with this.”

“Yeah,” the guy in the jogging suit snapped, “he can’t. So I say again, what are you people going to do about it? Stand here with your thumbs up your ass not doing a damn thing while that guy goes around and—”

“I’m very sorry that we got here too late.”

The words came from behind me, and all three of us turned. I was pretty sure we all had matching looks of astonishment, though for very different reasons. 

It was my dad. Well, it was Silversmith, all gleaming metal as he continued. “Let’s not blame the kid here for not being able to magically do the thing we adults should have been able to take care of. I understand your frustration, sir, I truly do. I promise you, we are not going to let this or any of his other crimes stand. We will bring him in and he will face justice. True justice. ”

Neither of the men who had approached me seemed to want to argue with him. I could see the frustration on their faces, but they said nothing while backing off. As they moved away, my father’s head turned until he was looking right at me. “You okay?”

In my short career as a superhero, I had already had a few chances to be glad that I wore a helmet. Never more so than right then. It meant that he couldn’t see my expression at all. Not even the little bit he might’ve been able to make out with just the normal mask. He couldn’t see anything. 

Staring at him for a moment, my mind remained totally blank. Luckily, I was pretty sure he was accustomed to that kind of reaction from people who first met him. It would definitely make sense that I seemed starstruck, right? 

A sudden thought occurred to me, and I made a motion up toward my helmet. I was trying to make it look as though I was reflexively moving to adjust glasses on my face before the helmet got in the way.  Hopefully, my father would add the idea that the person under the helmet wore glasses to his mental image of them. Of me. Making it look as casual as possible, I stopped when my fingers hit the visor before giving a quick, nervous nod. That part I didn’t have to fake.

“Y-yes, sir.” Oh God, I very nearly called him Dad. Seriously, it was right on the tip of my tongue. How bad would that have been? Even with my voice changer, that probably would have given the game away. How stupid did I have to be to—

“Don’t let them bother you,” Dad advised, with a nod toward the guys who had backed off. “They’re just… afraid and frustrated. They want all this to stop. They think we should be able to take this guy down, and frankly, they’re right. We should have brought him in by now. Everyone he kills is…” His voice cracked a little there, before he seemed to realize where he was, letting out a breath. “Sorry, it gets to everyone sometimes, so you don’t have to feel like there’s something wrong with you or anything.”

He extended a hand to me. “Anyway, I’ve heard a lot about you, but it’s nice to finally formally meet. Pretty sure you know the name’s Silversmith, but a lot of people just call me Smith, and that’s fine. Ahh…”

He trailed off, and I realized what he was waiting for. He was still holding his hand out. With a start, I took it and squeezed. I was shaking my father’s hand. Would he somehow suddenly realize the truth? Did he know me well enough to know what my hand felt like even through a glove? Some paranoid part of me thought he did. I was expecting him to suddenly say my name, expecting him to figure it out any second. 

“Paintball,” I abruptly blurted, as if to introduce myself. Part of it was me wanting to shove that name into his head instead of my real name, just in case some psychic part of him was building up. 

“Paintball,” my father echoed as though testing the name. He released my hand with a nod. “Like I said, I’ve already heard a lot of good things about you. You’re making a name for yourself pretty quick. It’s impressive. Especially that showing against Cuélebre. You even saved those civilian onlookers. Nice job.”

My throat went dry, and I had to swallow hard. “I’m just trying to help people.” And figure out exactly how your criminal empire operates in the process, so I can do something about it

“Well,” Dad replied, “You’re certainly doing that. But nobody can fix everything, especially by themselves.” With those words, he looked over toward the convenience store all the bodies had been brought out of. “Everyone needs help, even if they are some kind of prodigy.”

Seriously, when he said that, despite everything, I felt a sudden, strong rush of pride. My father was a supervillain, but he was still my father, and he called me a prodigy.

How fucked up were my priorities?

“I’ve heard,” Dad pressed on, “that you’re not interested in joining the Minority. I… I do wish you might reconsider that. As well as you’ve been doing, it’s like I said, everyone needs help sometimes. You could really get in trouble out there without backup, without a team. And I’d hate to see anything happen to you, kid. With monsters like Pencil out there…” He sighed low and regretfully, shaking his head. “Just give it a little more thought, okay? I know the team would love to have you around. Especially That-A-Way. She thinks you’d really fit in.”

What was I supposed to say to that? It would look super suspicious if I just flat out denied him again. He might start looking into why I didn’t want to be part of their team. So, I forced myself to give a very short nod. “I’ll think about it, sir. I just… need to do this on my own for now.”

He seemed to watch me for a few long seconds then, before giving a short nod. “I can respect that, just so long as you think about it. Anytime you change your mind, or just want some advice, you know where to go. You’ve got that number, right?” When I nodded, he gestured. “I’ve got to head back in there and see if there’s anything else we can do. You should probably head on out of here. The bad guy’s gone, for now anyway.”

“I… yeah.” Trying not to let myself sound as freaked out as I actually was about being so close to my father while he was about to go back into a scene like the one that had to be in that store, I waved vaguely. “I’ll ummm, I’ll get out of your way.”

Stepping back, I watched for another moment as my dad turned and headed back into the shop. Glancing around, I closed my eyes and slumped a little, trembling despite myself before forcing my feet to turn and carry me away from that place, away from all of that death and misery. 

I had made it. I’d gotten through my first face-to-face, of sorts, meeting with my father in costume. And, as far as I could tell, he didn’t suspect anything like the truth. That was a good thing, right? My supervillain father didn’t know that I knew who he was. That was absolutely, definitely a good thing. 

So why did I feel so bad?

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Interlude 5A – Pencil (Summus Proelium)

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Four years ago

“You’re not special, you know.“

The words were addressed to a family of four (a mother and father with a teenaged child of each sex), who were sitting bound and gagged on a couch in an innocuous-looking living room. They were a very all-American suburbanite-looking family. The father’s formerly thick, dark hair had passed the midpoint of balding and he was a bit saggy around the gut, though his bright blue eyes remained fiercely intelligent and sharp. Beside him, the man’s wife retained much of the beauty of her not-so-recent youth, with long blonde hair that only needed a bit of help retaining its color and shine thanks to quite wonderful genes. Her own eyes were dark, and were currently filled with tears. 

Their teenage children, meanwhile, each quite resembled their opposite-sex parent. The girl had long dark hair like her father’s had been some time before, with eyes whose brilliant blue matched his with the added youthful spirit. A spirit which, at the moment, seemed entirely broken by terror. And her slightly older brother was very clearly his mother’s son, with hair that might have been much shorter than hers, but was no less blond. His eyes too were as dark as hers, his rage and helplessness seeming to mask a revulsion and terror that was indescribable. 

All four were staring at a man in an ill-fitting brown tweed suit who stood nearby. He wore a sackcloth bag over his head as a mask with holes cut in it for his eyes and mouth. A wig of long, luxurious blond hair had been attached to the bag-mask, making him look quite normal from the back. 

The source of the family’s terror, beyond their imprisonment, was visible on the recliner chair beside their couch. An uncle who had been visiting, and who had thought to rebel against this intruder when he arrived, lay in that chair gutted from waist to throat, his insides spilling out as his dead horrified gaze seemed to stare accusingly at his family. 

Tears fell freely from the four as they fought not to look at the body. Both teenagers had been sick over themselves and the smell from it was competing with that of the body. They kept their attention rigidly locked on the man in front of them as he casually flipped a bloody knife between his fingers. 

“Everyone wants to think they’re special,” the man continued. “Especially victims. And you, uh, you’re pretty victimy. People like you, they want to think that something’s happening for a reason, that they were chosen for some… purpose.” 

He paused then, head cocked as though considering. “Actually it’s the survivors who really like to think that you’re special. They need you to have done something to deserve this. Or at least something to draw the attention of whatever made it happen. They need a cause-and-effect, because otherwise it could happen to anyone. It could happen to them. And, well, that’s just too terrifying a thought to consider.”

He stepped over, stopping in front of the mother. Her eyes widened with terror while her husband made repeated grunting sounds, trying to draw their attacker’s attention. 

Slowly, those eyes in the sack mask turned a bit to look toward the father. A low, raspy chuckle escaped the man as he spoke again. “Like I said, everyone thinks they’re special. They’re not. You’re not. Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why I’m here, why I chose you? It’s because I flipped through the phonebook and landed on an address. This house is where my finger stopped. Random, huh?”

He offered them a shrug, his gaze moving back to the mother. “But here’s the thing about randomness. It can go both ways. If I wanted to be truly random, couldn’t I just turn around and walk out that door right now?” He gave another raspy chuckle as their eyes moved hopefully to the front entrance. “Yeah, I could do that. I could leave. And then maybe I’ll find you again in a year, or maybe I’ll wait until the girl over there has a munchkin of her own and then take the kid.” His hand waved idly toward the fifteen-year-old girl, causing a muffled scream of outrage from her parents. 

“I could do a hell of a lot of things,” the man continued with a casual, musing tone. “But you know what sounds like a lot of fun? A game.“ 

With that, he reached out quickly, grabbing the mother by the arm before yanking her up. His knife was pointed toward the father to keep him docile while the masked man wrestled the mother up and over, making her straddle her husband. Humming, the man used the knife to cut the mother’s bonds, but kept it close to her side to prevent her from moving very much. He then took hold of one of her hands, extending it toward her husband. A cord was produced next, with a loop at either end. The man looped one end around her wrist, before looping the other end around the father’s neck. It kept her hand close to his throat. 

That done, the masked man lifted her husband‘s hand and repeated much the same to put his hand near her throat. Then he bound their opposite arms together to keep them locked that way. Husband and wife were now tied together, hands close to each other’s necks. 

Next, the man produced a pair of small revolvers. There was a collection of muffled shouting, but he spoke over it. “Now, now, let’s all hear what the rules of the game are before we start interrupting. Don’t be rude.” He made a show out of ejecting all of the shells from each revolver except for one in each. Then the man carefully placed one of the revolvers in each of the parents’ hands that were tied close to their partner’s neck before using a roll of duct tape to secure them in place, making sure they couldn’t move the barrels anywhere else. 

“Okay then,” the man announced, “we’re off to the races. The question we’re asking here today is which kid do you love the most? See, at least one of these kids has a fighting chance of walking out of here, if not both. If Daddy shoots Mommy, then his beautiful baby girl gets to leave completely untouched. If Mommy shoots Daddy, then their bright-eyed, bushy-tailed boy gets to survive. Maybe he’ll write a book about it. And, well, I suppose if both Mommy and Daddy shoot each other, the kids win the grand prize. Which is sort of a lifetime of nightmares and thousands in therapy bills. But hey, they’ll be alive. Which is more than I could say for the contestants.”

Turning, the man pointed to a camera that had been set up on a tripod in the corner and had been recording throughout his explanation. “And if you can, try to spray some of the blood toward our friends in the future audience. That’ll really give it a nice, visceral feel for the inevitable TV movie and true crime episode about this little hiccup in your lives. I mean, I’d say regular movie because, let’s face it, I’m pretty damn good at this. But I just don’t think you’re that important.”

He let them consider that for a brief moment before adding, “And just to make it interesting, let’s say that if neither of you have shot each other by the time that cuckoo clock over there goes off, I’ll just kill one of the kids myself. We’ll make it an Eenie Meenie situation.”

A handful of seconds passed as the man looked toward the clock before turning back to them with a small smile. “Would this be more or less nerve-racking if you could actually see that clock and had any idea how close it was to going off? I’m genuinely curious. Always looking to make these little visits better, you know? I thought of having comment cards, but I just don’t feel like you’d be honest. Oh, whoops, you’re probably trying to decide how much you love your kids right now, right? Well, I’ll let you get back to it, for the next… well…” He glanced toward the clock before offering them a shrug. “However long you have.”

Mother and father fought uselessly against their bonds for a few seconds, pleading through their gags for mercy while their eyes snapped back and forth between each other and the clock, whose face they couldn’t see. In the background, the masked man made a soft ticking sounds with clear amusement, occasionally glancing toward the camera while making pantomime gestures as if to ask, `Can you believe it’s taking them this long?’

The mother and father looked toward their bound and gagged children, a keening sound of desperation escaping the mother before she snapped her eyes back to her husband. A brief moment of silent communication passed between them and both slumped a little as they came to a mutual decision. 

“Ohhh, ladies and gentlemen and tied up offspring currently sitting on the couch,” the man started, “ I believe we have a—“

Two terrifyingly loud bangs filled the room as mother and father shot one another in the head, spraying blood and brain matter in every direction. The echoes of the shots were followed by barely muffled screams from both teenagers. Wails and sobs flooded from the pair to form a distinct soundtrack of horror against the grisly sight. Their violent, wretched grief, painfully visible on the camera for a moment, was blocked then as the masked man knelt in front of it. 

“Well, I guess that’s it for today. But don’t worry, we’ll see each other again. Maybe some of you sooner than you think.” With a wave of one hand, he used the other to reach out and turn off the camera. 

“Holy shit!” The new voice filled the room as soon as the camera was off, as the teenage boy lunged to his feet, his ‘bonds’ falling as he ripped the gag from his mouth. “Holy shit! That was amazing! That was so fucking cool! Wasn’t it, Manda?” 

He turned a bit, seeing his sister on the couch, still staring at their parents’ bodies. “Amanda?”

With a loud, gleeful squeal, the fifteen-year-old girl spat the gag in her mouth out and sprang just as energetically to her feet, fake bonds falling to the floor while she threw her arms around her sixteen-year-old brother. “Nick, Nick, that was so great! Did you see the look on their faces before they did it?! Oh, that was incredible. That was the most beautiful thing ever! That was amazing!” 

She continued to hug her brother tightly for a few seconds before turning to kick her mother’s lifeless leg. “Who doesn’t get a new phone now, bitch?!”

Nick tugged her back by the shoulder, barely sparing their parents a glance. “Come on, Manders, our little scene here looks pretty good, and the video’ll help. But we need to call the cops soon or it’ll look suspicious.”

The girl wound herself up to spit on their parents before Nick covered her mouth. “It’d look pretty weird to find your saliva on their bodies. Just saying.”

The two turned away from their parents, walking past their dead uncle without a glance or care before stopping in front of the masked man, who had stood there watching the whole time. 

“Good job,” Nick congratulated, “you sounded perfect.”

Reaching up, the man pulled off his mask, revealing a fairly normal looking pale man with red hair. “Shucks, all I did was follow your script. That was pretty fucked up, man, I ain’t gonna lie.”

Nick shrugged. “It’ll convince the investigators that our parents’ deaths were absolutely not our fault. So the inheritance and life insurance should pay right out. Hell, we’ll probably get donations from concerned citizens who just want to help us get past the grief.” He chuckled then, before reaching into his pocket to pull out a bundle of wrapped hundred dollar bills, which he handed over to the man. “Five thousand, just as promised. The remaining forty-five will be after we get paid. You know how it is.”

Amanda was already standing over next to a nearby door. She’d opened it to reveal stairs leading down. “Come on, you’ve got to go out through the cellar so the neighbors don’t tell the cops which way you went. There’s a trap door near the bushes at the edge of the fence.”

Nick nodded, heading that way first. “Yeah, I’ll show you how to get past the junk.” He patted his sister on the head before clomping down the stairs, with the other man descending after him. 

Reaching the bottom, the man paused at the crinkling sound as he stepped off the last stair and looked down. “Hey, why is there plastic on the—”

That was as far as the man got before Amanda, using the greater heights of standing on the stair above him, suddenly leapt on the man with a banshee shriek and drove a knife into the side of his throat. He screamed, the sound turning into a gurgling mess as he collapsed to the floor with Amanda on his back, cackling madly. The man choked and died there on the plastic wrap as the girl whispered sweet nothings in his ear. 

Finally, he was dead, and Amanda rose to reveal the plastic apron she had put on to protect her own clothes from his blood. “See?” she directed toward her brother, “Told you I could do it.”

Nick gave his sister a high-five before they rolled the body up in the plastic. He took the time to pick up the wig-covered mask that the man had dropped, looking at it for a moment before tucking the thing away. Together, they dragged the body in the plastic across the entire basement, past mounds of boxes and random junk until they reached the far corner, where a dresser stood. Brother and sister moved the dresser, revealing a hole that had already been prepared. In that hole was an old freezer. The two of them dumped the body into the freezer, added the mask and Amanda’s apron and knife before closing the lid, then dragged the dresser back over to cover the hole. Working quickly, they took a minute to stack random junk all around the dresser, making it look like no one had gone over there in quite some time. Once a bike with one wheel was shifted in front of the pile, the two of them ran back up the basement stairs to re-join their murdered family members. 

“Ready?” Nick asked his sister. Getting a quick nod from her, he reached out to pick up the phone, dialing 911. It rang twice before being answered, and he immediately began to sob about how they needed help, while Amanda provided a chorus of tears and pleading in the background. 

Soon, the sound of sirens filled the air, while brother and sister looked to one another. “Nick,” Amanda murmured with delight, “that was so amazing! We have to do that again.”

The boy chuckled. “Well, it’d be pretty hard to do that again. That was kind of a one-time thing. But don’t worry. We will definitely find ways to entertain ourselves.”

With a grin, Amanda started to respond. Then she paused, head tilting as she stared past him. “Hey, Nick…

“What’re those glowing orb things?”

********

Present Day

“So that’s how my sister and I got our powers and got rid of our parents at the same time.”

Nick, or Pencil as he was now known by the world at large, stood in the middle of the convenience store, surrounded by kneeling, sobbing figures. The now twenty-year-old wore the same sackcloth mask with blonde wig that he’d had their parents’ killer wear four years earlier, having retrieved it from the freezer before he and Amanda disposed of the body. 

Smiling under the mask, Nick gestured to the kneeling people. “Thanks for letting me get all that off my chest. I don’t know why, but I really felt the need to talk about it with somebody lately. And it’s not really the kind of story you tell the therapist. I mean yeah, sis and I are super-motivational speakers. You should see the way we get worked up in all the schools about overcoming adversity and shit. It’s just… I don’t think they’d accept this particular nugget. But let’s be honest, you guys aren’t gonna tell anybody. You’ll be dead.”

His words brought a renewed round of sobbing from the group of employees and customers, before one tried to lunge to his feet in a desperate bid to either escape or attack. 

Unfortunately, the man barely stood before Nick casually buried a knife in his stomach. The man choked, looking down at all the blood with a whimper. 

“There there,” Nick murmured. He withdrew the knife from the man’s stomach, turned it around, and placed it in his hand. The man was slumping against him, whining as he closed his fingers around the knife.

“You wanna try it?” Nick offered. “I know, I know. You’ve heard all about how nothing can kill me. But go ahead, give it a try. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

There was a brief pause, before the man rammed the knife into Nick’s stomach. Nothing happened. The knife passed in and out of his body with no apparent effect. No blood was drawn, and no wound was left behind. 

“Well, that’s unlucky,” Nick murmured. “Why don’t we try again?” With that, he waved his hand, and the wound in the stomach of the man he had stabbed was abruptly healed. There was no damage whatsoever, as the guy gasped in surprise while straightening up. 

Covering his mouth in mock surprise, Nick then explained, “Yeah, see, I’m not actually completely invulnerable. The truth is, everything I do to someone else, I become completely immune to. But it only works three times for every time I do it to someone else. And it’s super specific. Like, a stab in the arm won’t protect me from a stab in the head. Or if I set someone on fire, the only parts of me that are protected from burning are the parts of them that burned. So I tend to be pretty thorough.”

With a sudden curse, the other man tried to cut Nick’s throat. Again, nothing happened. 

Nick, with a roll of his eyes, drove a knee into the man’s groin, dropping him to the ground. “Dude, do you have any idea how often I’ve stabbed people in the throat? Yeah, I’m only protected three times per. But I’ve stacked like… pffft, hundreds by this point. It’s pretty ridiculous.”

Stepping over the man, he continued, addressing both him and the rest of the kneeling, crying people. “You’re wondering how I healed you, right? That’s the kicker. See, every time I do something to someone else, I get three slots of immunity from that thing. But I can spend one of those slots to heal anybody else from that specific thing. Yeah,” he laughed, “Probably one of the best healers in the country is a goddamn Abyssal-worshiping serial killer. Isn’t that just profoundly fucked up?”

Getting no real response from the terrified group, he sighed. “You people are no fun. Oh well, let’s—”

He was interrupted by the chime of the front door of the shop, as a uniformed police officer burst in with his gun raised. “Get your hands up! Get them up!”

Rather than comply, Nick simply turned to watch. Just as the police officer started to shout again, Amanda casually stepped out from behind a nearby shelf. Cup, as she was now known by their naming rules of using completely mundane objects for their ‘supervillain’ titles, wore a white bodysuit with a matching white cloak and hood. Her white mask was cloth, covering the lower half of her face. Pure white, the color of innocence. She thought it was funny. 

Stepping by the startled cop, she spoke up casually. “If a balloon floats up in the air, will it float down under water?”

The cop turned his pistol to her with a gasp. Then he stopped, his mouth moving as he repeated the question under his breath. A frown furrowed his brow and he repeated it again louder. His shoulders slumped, as the gun lowered. 

This was Amanda/Cup’s power. She could ask any nonsensical question, and a person’s entire focus and attention would be completely taken up with trying to answer it. They would become obsessed with the question for a short time, depending on just how absurd it was. The more ridiculous, the longer they would be distracted.

Cup plucked the gun from the cop’s hand, checked it, then shot the man in the face. He collapsed while everyone in the store screamed. 

With a sigh, Pencil regarded his sister. “Really? Now we have to hurry, and I can’t enjoy myself.”

Shrugging, Cup replied, “The rest of the Scions are waiting for us anyway, dude. It’s time to pray to Typhon.” It was a thing neither of them actually believed in, actually ‘praying’ to some poor fucked up loser who ended up turning into a monster. But it freaked people out, and they thought that was hilarious. Plus, most of the other Scions actually went for that stuff, so the siblings played it up. 

Checking his watch, Nick blinked. “Huh. Guess you’re right. Time really flies, huh? Oh well.” He turned back to the gathered group with a bright smile. “So…” he started while reaching out to pick up a jar with warning labels plastered all over it out of a nearby bag. 

“Which one of you wants to add to my acid immunity?”

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